They’re not yet ubiquitous on the subway. And the “paperless office” is still a dream at this point. Our second annual industry survey of industry professionals found that 70% of respondents had never read an e-book. It’s unlikely that entry-level employees will receive shiny new Sony Readers with their company handbooks any time soon. Still, in the past year or so, Random House, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, and Penguin (Perseus and Macmillan are set to follow) and many literary agencies have provided e-readers to senior employees, in at least a few departments. We surveyed these e-reader users to find out what they think of the devices and how their work routines have changed since getting them.
In general, we found that publishing houses are purchasing Sony Readers over Kindles. The majority of respondents who work at publishing houses are using Sony Readers. Why the disparity? Sony offers quantity discounts, while Amazon does not. Some publishers are also concerned about privacy, since documents e-mailed to the Kindle are sent through Amazon. James Lichtenberg, CEO of Lightspeed, LLC, notes that “with Amazon being such a major book retailer, there is the added shadow of channel conflict and confidentiality concerns.” But paranoia is unwarranted—Amazon’s not stealing your unpublished manuscripts. Half the agents surveyed are using Kindles, and a few respondents who work at publishing houses that provide them with Sony Readers went out and purchased Kindles on their own. One respondent who owns a Kindle, a Sony Reader, and an iPhone “likes the Sony reading experience best, but buys more books for Kindle because of the wireless interface.” Another wrote that the Kindle “seems more reader-friendly.” And a third Sony Reader user noted, “You can e-mail manuscripts to the Kindle—no downloading.”
In general, e-reader users are happy with the device they currently own. “I rather like my reader, which I didn’t expect,” says Cathy Goldsmith, EVP Art Director at Random House/Golden Books. “It’s small and elegant and the leather cover makes it feel like a book.” Respondents love the readers’ portability and paperlessness: “It saves me having to copy proposals from agents and having to lug around heavy manuscripts and tons of proposals.” Another writes, “I can put all my submissions in and read them in a quarter of the time it took me to print, lug home and read.” And an agent writes, “I carry and messenger and FedEx less. I’ve reduced my carbon footprint.”
Most respondents have found that since they got e-readers, they read more, read faster, and feel more productive. E-readers may also change their work styles. “It’s a different way of working,” says Victoria Skurnick, an agent at Levine Greenberg. “I don’t get more done, but I get more done without future spinal surgery.” Another respondent writes, “I read in more places and in shorter bursts.” And an agent says, “I always have it with me, so I am able to spend more down time reading.”
But e-readers are like spouses: When you spend a lot of time with them, you’re bound to discover things you don’t like. Some gripes: “It’s difficult to remember which book is which, since they all appear the same visually,” writes one Sony Reader user. “There’s no physical reference for how far in the manuscript I am. It’s not easy to go back and check a name or a detail.” That user wants wireless synchronizing, ability to change font, and “real” page numbers, as does an agent who wrote, “It would be useful to be able to correlate page numbers of the original material to the reformatted ‘location’ numbers on the reader.”
Those used to plowing through mountains of manuscripts find reading digital pages less satisfying: “It’s difficult to tell how far you have to read [and it’s] not as satisfying as throwing away pages.” An agent says, “It’s easy to lose your place in a manuscript and hard to flip through it to find a reference or mention.” And all the text on an e-reading device looks the same; an agent writes, “I get bored with the same type/font that all the material has.” Many desire a way to edit, “a stylus to actually write notes in the margins,” and a built-in light source. Sony Reader users covet the Kindle’s ability to transfer documents wirelessly. Meanwhile, a Kindle user complains that the Kindle is “locked to Amazon. I’d like to be able to buy material from anywhere I like, rather than just the Kindle store.” And though some appreciate that e-reading devices stand in for books—an agent wrote, “I need a device solely for reading manuscripts”—one respondent who uses a Sony Reader wishes for an iPhone instead because the Reader is “only usable for reading. At the moment, it is an additional device to BlackBerry/cell phone/iPod/iPhone/laptop and what have you. Finally, there’s one problem that probably won’t be solved any time soon: “I run the battery down at exactly the wrong time.”
Carolyn Pittis, SVP Global Marketing Strategy & Operations at HarperCollins, predicts that “the current dedicated e-reader devices, which are a great step forward for digital reading for book lovers, will nevertheless grow long in the tooth versus capabilities of open mobile platforms.” And Lichtenberg points out that Sony Readers and Kindles weren’t designed for the workplace. “I think the use of e-readers for workflow purposes is part of the larger, gradual, digital evolution of book publishing itself,” he says. “However, trying to retrofit business functionality into a consumer product inevitably leads to frustration.”
Nevertheless, respondents were not sure that typical readers would enjoy e-reading devices. While one appreciates “the ‘coolness’ factor that makes it kind of fun to use,” another says e-readers are “not very sexy, in the way an iPhone is sexy.” A respondent writes that because the devices are “not multifunctional,” the “vast majority” of consumers wouldn’t buy them—“one has to be a heavy reader to require a dedicated device today.” But the most prohibitive factor to purchasing a device on one’s own, the majority of respondents say, is cost; an agent predicts that once the price of e-readers “reaches $100” they’ll attract more users. One respondent also believes that typical readers still have “an attachment to owning a physical book, much like older music fans still need the CD, while kids do not.” Another agent says it’s “all a matter of getting used to the idea of it.”
And e-readers aren’t easy to try before you buy. “For the Sony, it was impossible to find a Borders employee who knew about the device and how to work it,” writes one agent. “They could barely find it in the store. I hope Sony expands their retail. I initially wanted to try the Kindle, but without being able to try it easily, I opted for the Sony. Retail accessibility would be nice for the Kindle.” An agent says, “It’s a less absorbing reading experience. I tried re-reading some favorite novels on the Kindle, and found the experience disappointing.”
However, people who work at publishing houses and agencies aren’t typical readers, and almost all the respondents think that more publishers and agencies will start handing out e-reading devices within the next year. They offer advice to those taking the plunge. “Do a test on the junior people first to see the best type of reader they prefer,” recommends one respondent, “and then send it up to the higher-ups. The younger people are usually more tech-savvy.” (Trickle-up of e-readers isn’t how distribution has usually worked at publishing houses, but it could happen.) Respondents also envision scenarios in which publishers provide e-readers not only to employees but also to key reviewers and booksellers—and then “make galleys and ARCs available to them” digitally.
Other tips: Prepare for e-reader envy. “Be ready to have everyone want one once you begin to give them out.” And put away the Advil: If only we’d done this earlier, an agent writes, “think of all the publishing backs that could have been saved.”